As social beings, throughout human history, we make things happen primarily in groups rather than as individuals. Whether inside a business, government agency, school board, religious organization or any other group, you most likely interact with others in order to decide what to do.
There is good reason for this: groups can often make better decisions than individuals on their own. A collective wisdom results when people work together to find the best solution to a problem.
However, we all know and have been part of a group where the decision turned out badly. This is often the result of groupthink, where the desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making.
Under certain conditions, determining a solution via statistical methodology may be preferable than through deliberation. James Surowiecki, in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, found that the average answer is often accurate, where accuracy is measured by reference to objective facts.
The average of a group of people judging the number of beans in a jar, for example, is almost always better than the judgments of the individuals alone. In one experiment, a group of 56 students were asked about a jar that held 850 beans. The group estimate was 871, and was more accurate than all but one of the students.
According to Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hassie in their new book Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, group decisions can go wrong for many reasons because they can:
- Amplify rather than correct individual errors in judgment;
- Fall victim to cascade effects with members following what others say or do;
- Become polarized by adopting more extreme positions than the ones they started with;
- Emphasize what everybody knows instead of focusing on critical information that only a few people know.
One of the central themes of their book is the importance of diversity, not in terms demographics, but with ideas and perspectives. This cognitive diversity can come about only when leaders choose to create the right kind of culture and hire the right kind of people.
Group decision-making often fails to produce good results because leaders tend to mix the divergent function (diversity of ideas) and consensus-seeking function. Both divergent and consensus functions are necessary, but are best when implemented separately. Sunstein and Hassie recommend eight potential approaches that can reduce the failure of group decision-making:
- Inquisitive and self-silencing. This requires leaders to listen to everyone before revealing their own perspective. The leader should be inquisitive and allow the opportunity for new ideas to emerge instead of seeking confirmation on where they stand.
- Priming critical thinking. This priming is about triggering some association or thought in a way to affect people’s choices and behaviors. When people are motivated to arrive at the right solution through critical thinking, they are far more likely to reveal what they know rather than guard this information until they have the complete solution. Leaders can help by simply saying: “Okay, now tell me something I need to know.”
- Rewarding group success. When people are rewarded only when the group is right, they are far more likely to reveal what they know. Restructure incentives so the group truly functions collaboratively. Identification with the group’s success means people are more likely to reveal their ideas regardless of whether this fits the party line.
- The role of roles. Having specialists representing diverse areas of expertise can be helpful because they each feel empowered to speak up. In government, “equities,” which, when working well, can result in people providing important information and perspectives that reflect their own role. Whether in the public or private sector, leaders should ensure people are assigned different tasks and roles in order to improve group decision-making.
- Perspective changing. Sometimes when a group ends up going down a path that doesn’t seem so good, it may be worth asking: “If we were to bring in new leadership, what would it do?” This simple question can sometimes break through the traps that keep groups from moving in the right direction.
- Speak of the devil. By deliberately assigning someone the role to play devil’s advocate, a leader can count on this person to challenge the status quo. In addition, the one assuming this role is then able to avoid the pressure that comes from rejecting the dominant position with the group, since they are being asked to do exactly that.
- Red Teaming. This is a contrarian team that operates similarly to devil’s advocates in that they attempt to poke holes in the primary team’s idea. They can be used to test worst-case scenarios and are common in the military and government. Private sector companies may outsource this function to “white-hat hackers,” who are paid to penetrate corporate firewalls or hack into security systems. Law firms use them with mock juries before going to trial.
- The Delphi Method. This is a formal process for aggregating the views of group members, and can be viewed as a version of averaging that enlists social learning. It’s beneficial because a) it ensures initial anonymity of all members, b) they are each given an opportunity to offer feedback on each other’s views, and c) the judgments of members are gathered again with statistical aggregation. The anonymity both in the beginning and end helps minimize the reputational pressure and reduces self-silencing.
Each of these has its merits, but none would be used in every scenario. The point is to look beyond the way your group currently makes decisions to determine which of the above might used to modify your deliberation in order to ensure better outcomes.